Around this time of year, conversation among Beijing's expatriates turns to the coming summer holidays: what seaside they'll be vacationing at, what Western foods they'll be eating, which books they plan to read, but most importantly how much clean air they're going to be breathing.
|Adrienne Mong / NBC News|
|The Forbidden City's famous rooftops can barely be seen through the smog and humidity.|
August in Beijing is dreaded for its brutal heat and humidity, which conspire with high levels of pollution, dust, and sand blowing in from the Gobi Desert. The air gets thicker and hazier, despite the fact that it's also the rainy season.
Just over a year away from the Olympics, one wonders how the athletes will perform under these conditions.
Well, the government in Beijing isn't wondering. It's busy battling the problem by instituting new power-saving measures to curb energy consumption in order to reduce pollution and laying the groundwork for, well, near-perfect weather.
Beating the elements
This week, officials at China's Meteorological Administration are launching a practice session firing rockets into the sky to disperse rain clouds. The drill is designed to simulate part of the climate-control process scheduled to take place around this time next year in preparation for the Olympic Games.
Early this month, when Beijing was hit by a muggy mini-heat wave, President Hu Jintao and other senior leaders initiated a creative solution for energy conservation: they swapped their suits and ties for white-collared shirts.
The breezier garb comes in handy now that the State Council (China's cabinet) has ruled air conditioners cannot be set any cooler than 79 degrees Fahrenheit. A team of 22 officials are on hand to check that offices, hotels, malls, and other big buildings in the city are observing the new ruling.
Authorities will also try out a test-run ban to ease the smog. Beginning the first week of August, one third of the capital's 3 million cars will be taken off the streets for several weeks. Officials have not said how they'll proceed, but it's not their first time. Last November, during a major China-Africa leadership summit, the city banned nearly half a million vehicles, helping to pave – ahem – the way for blue skies.
Attempts to tackle pollution aren't limited to the capital city.
|Adrienne Mong / NBC News|
|Central Beijing's hazy skyline.|
Workers have continued to build "The Green Wall," approximately a 400-mile barrier of trees and enclosed grassland stretching across China's northern frontier, to be completed by 2010.
Scientists in the southern city of Guangzhou are trying to create a new species of trees that can "resist" pollution.
In Shenzhen, home to one of China's first great experiments with capitalism, the mayor issued a plea to its affluent citizens to stop buying cars in an effort to help ease growing pollution.
Too little, too late?
But some wonder whether these steps are enough. A World Bank report, due out soon, according to the Financial Times, claims that as many as 750,000 people in China die prematurely every year from pollution.
And according to a recent report by a governmental official, "The model of economic development that we are currently pursuing is unsustainable."
China's deputy director of State Environmental Protection Administration (SEPA) added, "One-third of China's land mass is affected by acid rain. Over 300 million rural residents have no access to clean drinking water. One-third of urban residents breathe heavily polluted air."
The report warned, "Thanks to the traditional model of economic development – which is energy intensive, heavily polluting and relies on high levels of consumption – China has become the world's largest consumer of water, largest emitter of waste water and one of the three areas in the world worst affected by acid rain."